Thursday, 19 November 2015

Spotlight: Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is someone that I am immensely jealous of, I can't lie. She wrote her first novel when she was supposed to be doing her A-Levels, studied at Cambridge and lives in Prague. She's now published seven books (including plays), five of them novels, and she can still only be about 30 (she graduated Cambridge in 2006). She was a precocious talent who has now established herself in a successful writing career, producing critically acclaimed novels, which I greatly admire. She was on Granta's Top 20 Young Novelists under 30 in 2013. She's not much of a public figure: there aren't that many interviews with her, and I can't find a twitter page for her. This just makes her more enigmatic, I think. Anyway, to her books. 

The books I've read:

Boy, Snow, Bird: This is her latest book and most definitely my favourite. Here I think Helen got the balance just right between magical realism and an engaging, could-actually-happen plot. This was the first Oyeyemi I read and where I fell in love with her writing style: it's just beautiful, and I wanted to eat it up. It's the kind of beautiful writing that's easy to read too, and doesn't feel forced or try-hard. I loved the plot of this one too: it is told in three sections (but not in the titular order- it goes Boy, Bird, Snow), and follows a family in New England. Boy is the new wife of a widower, Arturo, who already has a daughter called Snow. When Boy has a baby girl, Bird, and she turns out to be coloured, the family pretty much falls apart, and it's interesting to see the tensions and fairytale elements weaved in. I think multiple perspectives really works here, and I loved to hear from each instrumental character and their dramatically different points of view. The themes are race, appearance and fitting in: very deep, but tackled in such a way that it doesn't feel like you're having an opinion forced on you, rather like you can explore things for yourself. Five stars. 

White is for Witching: My second Oyeyemi, and probably my least favourite. It's very experimental: it follows Miranda, who lives in a house on the white cliffs of Dover. However she has a condition called Pica which means that she wants to eat non-edible items, the main one of these being chalk. Aha. It's a novel that really explores Miranda's mental state. And the narrators- Miranda, her twin brother, her best friend, and finally, the house that she lives in. Bonkers, but it does work. I enjoyed it, but didn't feel I really cared for Miranda and it was sometimes a little too disjointed (just for my personal taste), so I gave it three stars. 

Mr Fox: I would describe this as a really interesting book. I just finished this one yesterday, and loved it at the beginning, and whilst my love petered off towards the end I did really enjoy it. It's about novelist St John Fox and his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe. One day she appears to him and tells him to stop killing off his female characters, a literary trope that he keeps on repeating. She calls him a serial killer, and then to battle it out the two of them (in his subconscious) start to tell stories which illustrate their side of the argument. Oyeyemi reworks folkloric characters such as Bluebeard and Reynardine, makes up some of her own strange tales (Blue and Brown? Hello?), and re-imagines St John and Mary (real and alive) in different situations. I enjoyed a lot of the pieces, and again they're written so well, but I felt a little like they led away from the original point that is made in the opening about how the killing of women in literature seems to make it okay in life, and about how male desires are so often hidden behind violence, both of which have to stop. The pieces became so obscure and fantastical that I couldn't quite remember what she was saying: although I really did enjoy the closing on the titular fox. I think everything in this book is well done, and well orchestrated: it just felt like a short story collection, rather than a novel. I gave it three stars but it is nudging on four: I'll probably change it. 

The books to read:

Icarus Girl and The Opposite House- her two earliest novels. I seem to enjoy her most recent works the most, but I would like to get to these. I'll probably feel even more envious of her when I read what she published so young. 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours- a new collection of interweaved stories, out in 2016. 

I think Helen Oyeyemi is a really exciting author: her books might not always be perfect but I really admire what she's trying to do and the themes she is exploring. She's serious, establishing a viewpoint and certain opinions, but she does it in such a light and beautiful way that I feel she has a really important voice. I love seeing her writing progress over her work. And her writing is sublime. I feel like I'm really going to love what she does next. 

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